From time to time the New York art world experiences what I call a harmonic convergence -- a day or week when a large cluster of exhibitions open. But convergences aren't just about numbers. Something else has to happen. A frisson of anticipation, emotional sharpness, euphoria or confusion has to be in the air -- the feeling that things have momentarily slipped into or out of focus, that one is on the cusp of change, whether good, bad, intimated or undeniable.
By my measure one such convergence culminated two Saturdays ago, on Jan. 11, when more than 60 new gallery shows opened within 48 hours of one another. These shows, plus 25 others that opened in the previous few days, made it feel like the art world was exploding, and it felt good.
It's been a while since this feeling prevailed. Not only did this season begin with a convergence of the disharmonic kind, in a series of exhibitions that climaxed in back-to-back black holes on 24th Street (Gary Hill at Barbara Gladstone, Sam Taylor-Wood at Matthew Marks and Julia Scher at Andrea Rosen), but for two years people have been grousing that the art world was running out of steam, and were waiting for the ax to fall. But it hasn't. In fact, despite threats of war, financial anxiety and chronic esthetic ennui, things have speeded up; more galleries are showing more artists than ever before. The art world has grown so big that it may no longer be able to fall apart in the dramatic way it did in the early 1990s. That collapse was large, visible and cathartic. The art world was left to put its house in order -- and it did. Now, just when you'd think things would slow down, the engine is revving faster. Temporary or not, this is causing things to ferment.
On Jan. 11 the weather was cold but the galleries were packed. A lot of information, both new and old, seemed in play and even up for grabs -- information that if looked at in a certain way suggests a subtle change may be in the offing, that there's more room to move and less to lose. This convergence of openings vividly illustrates that careers come in all shapes and sizes, that art is about the long haul not the overnight, and that always hungering for the Next Big Thing often means missing what's right under your nose.
That day a generational balance seemed to have been momentarily struck. There were artists of all ages in different stages of their careers. Lesser-known, more mature ones, like Dona Nelson, Mel Kendrick, Perry Hoberman and David Scher (whose show at Leo Koenig is a dark horse) all looked particularly good, and a famous one, David Salle, whose return to Mary Boone finds him stuck in a rut, is still engaged in a mostly tedious if dissociated dialogue with Alex Katz. There were known but somewhat neglected artists like Tacita Dean, turning up the heat of her art; local heroes like Kevin Landers, who is doing what he's always done better than ever; and Tim Gardner, who's either trapped in a holding pattern or simply losing ground. Wherever he is, it's unclear what Gardner's ambitions are, whether he's simply trying to improve his technique, which only brings him closer to academicism, or if he's thinking of going deeper into his subject, which he hasn't really done since his first show.
Only 11 days into the new year, I spotted 10 works already dated 2003, including one by perennial slowpoke Janine Antoni. In the downtown Gagosian office, I beheld the most shocking thing I saw all day: Damien Hirst's huge, black-and-bluish monochrome made entirely of dead flies. This painting, titled Armageddon, is a perfect metaphor for the fears of the present moment and a reminder that when Hirst is not mythologizing himself he's capable of remarkable things.
At Sonnabend, a group of previously unseen pictures by the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher depict industrial views that (compared with their famous, focused architectural studies) are practically panoramic. Uptown, Agnes Martin at the age of 91 has made what for her is a major leap, painting layers of vaporous color in vertical bands. At Shainman, Malick Sidibé's pictures are intoxicating, and at Sikkema, Shahzia Sikander is breathing new life into her quixotic drawings by animating them, although this device could turn into a gimmick.
There were satisfying surveys of Jan Dibbets, Keith Haring and early Raymond Pettibon at Gladstone, Deitch and Zwirner & Wirth, respectively, and promising debuts, notably Christopher Minor's painful/poignant videos at Bellwether and Orly Genger's obsessive yarn pieces at Stux. At Kreps, Daniel Bozhkov's Learning How to Fly Over a Very Large Larry, about his crop-circle earthwork of creepy Larry King, was the squirrelliest thing I've seen in some time. The paintings of Faris McReynolds at Marvelli are conventional but an OK start, while Matthew Northridge, who exhibited a cool-looking city-grid sculpture at the New Museum last summer, presented a series of too-tight, Tom Friedman-ish works at Gorney Bravin & Lee.
In addition to commendable exhibitions in established galleries, a number of new spaces opened by former gallery directors are spicing things up. Michelle Maccarone, the energetic ex-director of Luhring Augustine, whose two-floor gallery in Chinatown is one of the livelier spaces in town, is currently showing the wickedly strange drawings and videos of Californian Anthony Burdin. John Connelly, formerly of Rosen, has a joyful, all-over-the-place exhibition curated by Scott Hug, the editor of K48 magazine, and titled "Teenage Rebel -- The Bedroom Show." A few blocks away, Daniel Reich, the former director of Pat Hearn, who has been staging excellent exhibitions out of his teensy West 21st Street ground-floor apartment for over a year, is showing an installation by Christian Holstad, consisting of a walk-in, plastic-draped bedroom decorated with torrid, meticulously crafted drawings and collages. In the back room of LFL Gallery (a little space trying to make it big on the super-block of West 24th Street), and echoing some of the craft and sex of Holstad's work, are the drawings of Tim Lokiec, a young artist who also has work in a noteworthy group show at the ATM Gallery on Avenue B (run by an artist who leases ATM machines for a living).
These intrepid dealers join a group of former gallery directors turned gallery owners who are already well established. On Jan. 11, Gavin Brown, perhaps the most intrepid of them all, celebrated his seventh anniversary with a show called "20 Year Anniversary." Brown's style is tribal and daring. His eye is prophetic, his personality charismatic, and his presence in New York has been indispensable. Former John Good director Carol Greene, who is part-owner of Greene Naftali, regularly does edgy exhibitions, and is currently showing Sergej Jensen, a young German painter who fits her profile to a tee. Former Paula Cooper director James Cohan, who had the smarts to install a wood floor in his Chelsea gallery, opened a breezy show called "Air," which features, in addition to works by Courbet and Constable, excellent sculptures by Olafur Eliasson, Erick Swenson and Robert Gober; Antoni's ghost-behind-a-curtain piece; a great, glittering outdoor installation by newcomer Howard Goldkrand; and an intriguing video of jets taking off and landing in an apartment by Hiraki Sawa, who's still in art school in England.
Then there was the giant butt plug by Paul McCarthy installed in the smallest space in town, the Wrong Gallery, operated out of a doorway on West 20th Street by the dauntless crew of Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick. Someday we're all really going to miss this venture. Luckily for us, rebels and oddballs like these keep appearing. At American Fine Arts, run by Colin de Land (our Keith Richards), an electric blanket by '70s conceptualist John Knight lay on the floor of an otherwise empty gallery. As I overheard a viewer complain about "the waste of space," I though how great it is that gallerists are still willing to allow their spaces to be so subverted.
Kenny Schachter, who for 15 years was a freelance curator/subverter himself, has settled into his own all-steel, Vito Acconci-designed space on Charles Lane. There, at the moment, is a batty sewn installation by Misaki Kawai. The closest thing to a don't-miss I saw all day, it features an enormous airplane made out of fabric with dolls of the Beatles as passengers. Meanwhile, Mitchell Algus, who supports his gallery working as a math teacher in Queens, and who should be given a MacArthur for his efforts in exhibiting artists who have slipped off everyone's radar, opened a yummy survey (organized by Jack Pierson) of the late publisher-designer-artist-author-bon vivant Charles Henri Ford.
The revving engine has not only allowed many of these gallerists to open, it has allowed them to stay open. This is making New York feel bigger, more accessible and less predictable. Now when people tell you nothing good is going on, you can look at them and say, "If you can't see it, I can't help you."
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this review first appeared.